Hundreds of people celebrated the opening of St. John Hospice, a new 14-bed facility located on the University of British Columbia campus on Friday.
The first community hospice on Vancouver’s West Side was conceived and built by the Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller, an ecumenical, international, Christian organization, in partnership with the UBC, Vancouver Coastal Health and Providence Health care.
“It was a long haul,” said Chevalier Ken Mahon, the hospice fundraising chair, about the more than six years it took to find the right location and build the hospice just in time for the Sovereign Order’s 900th anniversary.
“As an order, we have for 900 years provided hospice care to the sick and poor. We are a modern organization that has taken those roots and operates like a charity,” said media spokesman Peter Hebb.
Historically, “hospice” is derived from the Latin word “hospis,” meaning host and guest. Medieval hospices provided care and concern for both the body and the spirit of travellers. Later, they became places to care for the sick and the dying, especially soldiers returning from the Crusades.
A first location at SW Marine Drive and University Blvd. had to be given up after 1-½ years, as the university needed more student housing. The Order was offered the choice of six new locations and decided in favour of the present one at Stadium Road, across from the back entrance of the UBC botanical Garden and Thunderbird Stadium.
The Order received a 99-year lease at $1 per year from UBC. The Faculty of Medicine donated $250,000 towards the construction of a research facility on site. To make the project possible, a fundraising committee of 30 members managed to raise $4.4 million within eight months, with no fundraising costs. The donations came from targeted names with a success rate of over 90 per cent, said Mahon. An additional $1-million grant was provided by B.C. Housing.
Dr. David Ostrow, President and CEO of Vancouver Coastal Health, said they usually do retrofitting of older buildings, but this new building is “as good as it gets.”
Indeed, the brand new facility is intended to look more like a big home than a small institution. The community rooms, hallways, dining and private rooms are decorated with a variety of donated works of fine art. The furnishings and landscaping, also provided by the Order, look distinctively different from hospital interiors. Every room includes an ensuite bathroom and a sofa bed for family members.
“Access to the UBC Botanical Garden, which is across the street from the house, is a unique aspect,” said Hebb. “They have kindly provided an arrangement for residents and their families to access the Botanical Garden, as a quiet place to go and walk, or sit and rest a while.”
“Every community should have a hospice.”
The opening of the hospice, which is expected to be operational by the end of September, comes right on time for Vancouver, as Marion Hospice near Vancouver General Hospital is about to close.
Simin Tabrizi, program manager for hospice palliative care at Providence health, said in order to determine how many hospice beds are needed in an urban environment like Vancouver, Vancouver Coastal Health and Providence looked at the issue exhaustively and came to the same conclusion as other regional health providers.
“Basically, in an urban centre, one needs to have seven beds per 100,000 population,” said Tabrizi. This means a city like Vancouver, approaching the 700,000-population mark, is in need of 49 beds, she said. Currently, Vancouver has 28 beds, including six beds at May’s Place at the Downtown East Side, 10 beds at St. James Cottage Hospice near the PNE and 12 beds at Marion hospice, which will be closing soon, but is planned to be rebuilt at a later time.
“UBC hospice will start with 12 beds and hopefully, eventually two more beds,” said Tabrizi, as the funding, as well as most staff and volunteers from Marion Hospice will be relocated to St. John.
At the end of October, the Vancouver Hospice Society (VHS) is expected to open a fourth facility with six beds on Granville St. at 30th Ave, which will bring the total to 34 beds.
“We are in conversation with Vancouver Coastal Health and intend to receive referrals through the Palliative Access Line as do all the other hospice residences,” said Geri McGrath, executive director of VHS. “We will also be open to referrals and calls for help by anyone in our community faced with end of life issues.”
What qualifies patients to become hospice residents?
“If a person has a prognosis of three months or less in their expected life, a life-limiting illness and declining physical abilities, then you are able to be referred for hospice care,” said Tabrizi, who added the costs are $30 per diem for residents, with the remaining funded by regional health authorities through the Ministry of Health. The spectrum of diseases includes cancer, aids and end stage diseases like cardiac, lung, liver, kidney and possibly neuro-degenerative diseases.
A clinical counselor and a pastoral care worker provide spiritual care for people from all backgrounds, faiths, and income levels. Volunteers are trained to help out as companions and caregivers to patients and families. “We are interested in recruiting as many volunteers [as at Marion] to be involved at St. John,” said Tabrizi.
Susan Dickson was the director of volunteer and support services at Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, which has 10+ beds, and is thrilled about the new facility. “As long as you have life, you want to participate as long as you can,” Dickson said.
“Unfortunately, we are a death-defying society, but everyone is going to be there at some point. So how can we make it a good death, if that is what you can call it, with the people that we love and that surround us?”
In 2011, the UBC hospice made headlines, as some neighbours complained about the location of the facility right in their back yard. That controversy has been laid to rest, but it raised John Stuart’s curiosity, who as it happens, is not a Hospitaller, and came all the way from North Vancouver to the opening. Stuart’s sister died in a Prince George hospice, and he was glad when his city’s North Shore hospice with 10 beds was opened in 2010.
One thing on his mind, though, after seeing his sister suffering through three rounds of breast cancer, was if and when assisted dying would be offered at hospices, a practice B.C. residents and ALS patients such as Sue Rodriguez and Gloria Taylor fought for, but which is still illegal in Canada.
Dr. Grady Meneilly, Head of the UBC Department of Medicine, said the most important thing is that the hospice is a site of care. The new research hub will host students from different disciplines, who will be able to conduct research if they receive permission of the residents.
“I will say that I’ve rarely ever met a patient . . . who would not want to have a student involved in their care,” said Meneilly. “Students are young, they are enthusiastic. And not only do [the patients] enjoy the company of young people, but they also enjoy the fact that they are helping somebody to learn about this, and so help other people like them.”
Meneilly added the biggest obstacle for access is lack of knowledge of the general public.
According to the Conversation Project, 70% of people would prefer to die at home, but 70% die in a hospital setting, said Ostrow. “We can do better.”
Report and photos by Katja De Bock
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